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Neurodiversity and faith

By: Doreen Gosmire, director of communications, Dakotas UMC

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A body sock fits snugly to provide comfort in the quiet room at Flame of Faith UMC in West Fargo, North Dakota. Photo by Pastor Sara McManus.

"Church is usually where you are expected to sit still and be quiet. That isn't always comfortable for those people whose brains may work differently. We want everyone to connect with God," said Elizabeth Ewing Lee, education chair at Flame of Faith UMC in West Fargo, North Dakota.

Elizabeth Ewing Lee, Stacy Kemerling, and Rev. Sara McManus, leaders at Flame of Faith, all realized that several kids had a hard time sitting through a worship service. That was also true for some adults. 

"We realized several kids, including my two boys, have attention deficit order," said Ewing Lee. "We want  them to know that God loves us all."

They, with other congregation leaders, started brainstorming about how to make worship and other activities at the church more welcoming, comforting, and inviting for everyone. They contacted the North Dakota Autism Center to learn and gather resources.

"I learned a lot. It shifted my thinking. The idea that ‘because I think differently doesn't make me less’ really struck a chord with the rest of the team and me," said Pastor Sara McManus. "In some ways, we are all neurodivergent."

Neurodiversity is the idea that it's normal and acceptable for people to have brains that function differently from one another. Rather than thinking something is wrong or problematic when some people don't operate similarly to others, neurodiversity embraces all differences. The concept of neurodiversity recognizes that brain function and behavioral traits are simply indicators of the human population's diversity.

The team planned to set up spaces and tools that kids and adults could utilize during worship. There were always busy bags for kids, but now there are fidgets, weighted lap pads, cozy blankets, noise-canceling headphones, adult coloring books, and wiggle seats.

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Weighted lap pads, top, wiggle seats, left, and noise canceling headphones, right. Photos by Doreen Gosmire.

"A lot of these items are used, mostly on Wednesday nights, when there are a lot of families. However, we see adults also using some things on Sundays, " McManus said. "We are trying to be sensory friendly."

At Vacation Bible School, a calming time was part of the plan for each session. "It is about striking a balance so that everyone has a chance to worship and learn about God's love," said Pastor Sara.

Worship has never been a quiet solace experience at Flame of Faith, but now there is a difference in how everyone interacts. "People are more comfortable. We have changed the experience from listening, sitting, and watching to seeing and doing. We have a see, do card to guide the worship experience," explained McManus. 

There is a quiet room. The room is a space away from the flow of activity with soft lighting, a sound machine, rugs, blankets with different comforting textures, and body socks. The body sock tightens snugly around the person to calm them. 

"My boys have used the quiet room. The different sensory experiences, touch, and textures have been great," said Ewing Lee.

The congregation held their first neurodiversity awareness event this spring, Neurodiversity and Faith. Three speakers shared their stories of neurodivergence. View their stories.

Ewing Lee is a Psychology professor at Concordia University in Moorhead, Minnesota. She invited one of her students to share her story about living with attention deficit disorder. 

"She was hesitant because she was recently diagnosed with ADHD and hadn't shared her story with anyone. She did it, and afterward, her mother thanked me because her daughter felt empowered. Now she wants to help others and continue to share her story," Elizabeth Ewing Lee said. "She is looking at getting an advanced degree in Developmental Psychology.

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A "We See and We Do" card to guide the worship experience.

Flame of Faith UMC has been certified as an Autism Friendly Community Partner through the North Dakota Autism Center. The congregation hopes to continue to build its resources and partnership by doing outreach and holding more awareness events. 

Because of the partnership with the North Dakota Autism Center, one family decided to attend VBS. "We invited people through the center. One family with two nonverbal kids came. They found out that we were neurodiverse friendly from the center. Our outreach efforts seem to be working," said Ewing Lee. 

Flame of Faith UMC hopes to continue the momentum. "We want to allow people freedom to do what they need to during worship," said McManus.

Ewing Lee would like to add a neurodiversity support group for parents. "I dream we can be that church, especially for children and adults, where they can worship God, however their bodies connect."

UMC

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